April 3, 2005

Legislating Morality (Secular, That Is)

The namby-pamby branch of liberalism epitomized by the New York Times editorial page usually claims to support freedom of expression and freedom of conscience as public goods. But not always In this editorial entitled "Moralists At the Pharmacy," the Times comes out for forcing pharmacists, as a condition of keeping their licenses, and thus their livelihoods, to dispense both the "morning-after" pill and birth control medications.

The Times condemns those pharmacists who, mostly for religious reasons, choose not to dispense such medications, and supports measures to compel them to violate their consciences in order to comply with the Times's view of right and wrong.

It is striking, first of all that the Times, in its very title, condemns "moralists." Presumably a "moralist" is someone who follows a moral code stricter than that espoused by the paper's editorial board and publisher. The Times, of course, also espouses a moral code, strange though it is and uncertain though its origins may be. Everyone has an ethos, even those who proclaim indifference to morality.

In a free society, freedom of conscience ought to amount to more than Lewis Carroll's question,"Who is to be master?" If this is so, many will make choices others condemn.

Why pharmacists should not enjoy this same right is unclear. The Times's best arguments are that in rural areas, a choice by a pharmacist not to sell certain products might render them completely unavailable, or at least discourage the customer who wishes to obtain them, and that certain groups might pressure pharmacists to follow the groups' views and decline to carry these items.

Although speculative, both scenarios are plausible. However, the internet and overnight delivery make almost everything available in rural areas that is available in Manhattan. Nor should freedom of conscience be tolerated only if it is convenient.

Would the Times require rural general store owners to sell guns and ammunition, against the owners' conscience, even if necessary to self-defense, in emergency situations? Probably not, because to the urban liberal, weapons and self-defense are Bad Things. Birth control and abortion, on the other hand, are Good Things.

The Times types generally condemn those in public life who would "legislate morality" and impose their moral views, or even those of the majority, on the whole society, whether the issue is school prayer, divorce, or homosexuality. But the Times sees nothing wrong in legislating compulsory dispensing of medical devices against the conscience of the dispenser.

Footnote: would the Times revoke the licenses of pharmacists who declined to fill prescriptions for suicide medications under that state's assisted-suicide law?

I don't want to hear the answer.

Update: Steve Chapman takes on the same issue.

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